Monday, October 22, 2007

Fall 2007 TV: Viva Laughlin

Viva Laughlin (CBS)

It seems a little pointless to review Viva Laughlin at this point, since, as noted in a comment from Greg Burgas, and confirmed by Zap2It, CBS has already cancelled it. The first episode airs Thursday, the second episode airs Sunday, and it's dead on Monday. Ouch.

Let's face it: a show this "unusual," to be charitable, was never going to succeed, especially not on CBS, whose motto is "Commutatum Timemus" (lit. "We Fear Change"). But it might have at least made it to episode three if it had been any good. Which it wasn't.

Rather than dancing on the grave at length, let me just hit a few low notes:

--The lead actor, Lloyd Owen, is powerfully devoid of charisma. He actually repels the viewer, when the viewer needs to be coaxed into accepting the show's wacky format.

--The writing is abysmal. Toward the end of the episode, the son sells his car to try to help his father out of a bind. The father searches for something kind to say in return. Father: "That blemish -- red zit thing on your face... it's clearing up real nice." Son: "Thanks." And both they, and the sentimental music, bask in the warm moment they have shared. Sweet merciful crap, that is bad.

--As for the singing: it works twice, kind of, in the beginning. Owen sings along to the radio (Elvis' "Viva Las Vegas") in the car; we've all done that, and we've seen characters on other shows do that, too. Then, when he arrives at his casino, he continues the song as he walks inside, amidst the new construction, even jumping on top of a table for the big finish. It's a nice transition, from singing in the car to genuine musical number, easing us into the format.

Later, Hugh Jackman arrives at his own casino via helicopter. He sings "Sympathy for the Devil" as he walks the gaming floor, winking at every showgirl, throwing money in the air. Jackman's a fine singer, and loaded with all the charisma that Owen lacks. But the tune loses its fun quickly. The song crosses the line from Jackman taking pleasure in his debauchery, tongue-in-cheek fashion, to an anvil of exposition: No, listen, we're serious, this is the bad guy! Get it? He's singing about the devil because he is the devil!! At least, that's how it felt to me. Jackman even ends the same way Owen ended his song, by jumping up on a table. I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt, and say that this was an intentional mirroring moment, that Jackman's flourish, surrounded by beautiful women and cheering gamblers, is meant to contrast Owen's finale, to an empty casino still being built. Maybe it was intentional. Or maybe it was just lazy, repetitive choreography.

The real disaster, in re: the singing, comes when Melanie Griffith takes part. She and Owen duet on Blondie's "One Way or Another," and hoo boy, is it bad. First of all, let me note that Kristen Bell did this song on Veronica Mars first, and much better. Second, Griffith is just plain scary to look at these days, what with her cosmetic surgery-disfigured face. Third, there's simply no art, no fun, no joy in the staging; they just sing the song back and forth to each other, as Griffith tries to seduce Owen, and he resists. It's so flat and devoid of energy and excitement. It's hard to watch, frankly; it's an embarrassment. I'd love to see a minute-by-minute tracking of the ratings during this part of the show; I'm guessing this is where they hit rock bottom, as viewers tuned out by the thousands.

Oh, did I mention everybody is singing over the original songs? It's like bad karaoke! Rather than compose any new songs, or even make new musical arrangements for old songs, they just sing right over the pre-existing version. So you get Jackman trying to outdo Mick Jagger, which ain't gonna happen. Or you get Owen singing over Debbie Harry's voice. It worked when Owen was singing with Elvis on the radio, but aside from that, it's just clunky and distracting.

I was actually looking forward to this show, in some ways. I thought Jackman could bring some life to it (and he did, but not near enough to overcome the general awfulness of the script), I thought the show might be a pleasant break from all the crime procedurals that dominate the airwaves, and heck, I just like Laughlin, and I was looking forward to seeing it on the small screen. But it's a total flop. CBS was wise to cut their losses so quickly, but they would've been a lot wiser never to greenlight it in the first place.

Rating: 2 out of 10

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